If I have a favourite movie from Alfred Hitchcock’s early English period – it is definitely The Lady Vanishes (1938). It is funny, it is mysterious and there’s a bit of action.
It also has a great cast of English actors who, together with the director, keep the film moving along the tracks like the train which is central to much of the movie.
I’ve seen it countless times and, considering its age, it’s amazing.
The film begins with miniatures of a snowbound village and a railway track blocked by snow which wouldn’t fool a five-year-old child these days but certainly passed muster way back when there were no helicopters and budgets to cater for these things.
The train won’t be leaving the village tonight and so a bunch of diverse characters are stuck a long way from home in a country which is not necessarily as friendly as the hotel where they are staying.
The Lady Vanishes was filmed as the Nazis were planning to snatch countries and set up the beginning of World War Two… So, it was a timely movie in historical terms and the best is made by the script to capture the feeling of being a foreigner in an Axis country similar to Germany during the lead up to the war.
Actors Cecil Parker (1897-1971) and Linden Travers (1913-2001) are a couple having an affair and they are among the first introduced in the hotel that evening as patrons scramble to secure a room.
“…the Exhibition was at its height,” says a tense Parker about their tryst in Paris as he books two single rooms at this hotel denying them a double because there are too few people.
“Don’t rub it in,” says the rather beautiful Travers.
Meanwhile there is Charters and Caldicott who are a pair of gentlemen that seem to have been mistaken as “La Greka”, or a Greek couple in terms of their sexuality, by the hotel manager and the maid. They are played so well by Basil Radford (1897-1952 cirrhosis) and Naunton Wayne (1901-1970) that the pair managed to carve out a mini career appearing as the same characters in several other movies. Anyway, the Greek aspect is a running joke at the beginning of the movie.
Then we have star Margaret Lockwood (1916-90 cirrhosis) who says to her wards, one of which is Googie Withers (1917-2011), that she has done it all including sausage rolls at the dog races or something and “what is there left but marriage?”
The maid tells the waiter that Charters and Caldicott are “Greka” to which he shows his distaste and mumbles despite the fact that the pair care for nothing but the game of cricket or so it seems. This fact being despite Nazi Germany’s belligerence and current headlines which read ‘England on the Brink’ which turns out to be only about a test match!
Charters yells down a phone to England where he learns that it’s “blowing a gale” but upon not finding out the latest cricket score hangs up on the rare international connection in a huff. Charters and Caldicott are classics!
Then we are introduced to another character, the key character in the film, who is a little old lady dressed in tweed played by Dame May Whitty (1865-1948 cancer). She will be the lady who vanishes later aboard the train even though it has not stopped.
Her name is Miss Froy and she listens outside her window to a singer with a guitar while we are also introduced to the other main star of the movie Michael Redgrave (1908-85 Parkinson’s disease). His character is making a racket upstairs in the hotel collating overweight villagers as they dance their local folk dance.
He’s some sort of folk musicologist and they dance heavily on the top floor to the sound of his clarinet. All this much to Lockwood’s chagrin as she can’t sleep downstairs. Lockwood puts a stop to it and uses her connections in the hotel to have him kicked out.
Meanwhile, in a rather black scene, the singer with the guitar is strangled by a pair of hands in the shadows, possibly for the fact he plays the same tune over and over again! Miss Froy throws down a coin in thanks. The tune he plays will figure in the proceedings later…
Yes, so they are some of the characters in what must have been a dream ensemble in its day. The following day the tracks will be clear and they will be aboard the train crossing Axis held countryside. Lockwood gets a knock on the head before she boards and then strikes up an acquaintance with Miss Froy. Lockwood snoozes and when she awakes, Miss Froy is gone and it appears no-one has seen her… Has she been kidnapped? Or did Lockwood imagine her?
Except for Redgrave, who she despised for the previous evening’s behaviour when he intruded into her room, no-one seems to have ever seen Miss Froy. For various reasons the other English on the train deny having seen her, despite the fact they have, which only complicates matters. But the foreigners in Lockwood’s compartment swear there was no lady. Are they all in a plot?
As The Lady Vanishes progresses, the English citizens on the train become a microcosm for different sorts of British who go about their lives in different ways unaware that nefarious forces are at work around them. We often know there is evil but it is not until we take a stand to oust and destroy that evil, just like the Allies had to against the Nazis, that we can return to life just as it was before. Free. And to ignore evil… it’s just as bad and asking for trouble!
Lockwood had already done a dozen movies by the time The Lady Vanishes had come around and, as for Redgrave, it was his first feature film after having much success on the stage in the West End. Lockwood ended her life as a recluse and Googie Withers said it was “very sad” when I interviewed her years ago as Lockwood would pay people at the door of her home when they bought her cigarettes and probably alcohol due to her reported death from cirrhosis.
“…Merely a vivid, subjective image,” says a Germanic brain surgeon played by Paul Lukas (1894-1971) about Miss Froy to Lockwood and Redgrave who are investigating the disappearance.
Lukas had operated on the brain of a British politician and Redgrave quips: “Did you find anything?” There are pokes at both sides of politics, even the British politicians themselves, as black comedy is scattered liberally throughout this movie along with the basic drama of the narrative of Miss Froy’s disappearance.
Lockwood and Redgrave are perfect together and the pair didn’t know each other when Redgrave was cast. They had uncomfortably faced photographers and posed together showing false intimacy at a theatre for publicity before filming began. They were wary of each other and it worked extremely well for the opening part of the film where Redgrave tells Lockwood in a whisper: “Confidentially, I think you’re a bit of a stinker, too.”
According to Redgrave’s biography, he said: “Margaret and I got along well, although we remained suspicious of each other for some time.”
It was lucky the scenes of the two being prickly together were shot first and it all may have come down to Hitchcock setting it all up although this has never been confirmed.
It is also reported in the Redgrave biography Secret Dreams by Alan Strachan that the actor learnt a good lesson about filmmaking early on as he sat bleary eyed early one morning in make-up next to Lukas. Lukas told Redgrave that he had seen the actor in a play and that in comparison while shooting The Lady Vanishes he had hardly been trying.
Redgrave said indeed that filming was quite dull since Hitchcock seemed to want him to just hit his marks on the soundstage, inflect his lines and to keep it snappy.
But Lukas told him: “But my dear boy, it’s all going in the can. Once the director has taken the last shot of a scene it’s too late to wish you could do it again.”
It was a vital lesson and anyone can see Redgrave’s performance is vital and alive along with Lockwood – and the other players as well. But for a film debut Redgrave shines.
Also, for a theatre actor like Redgrave, it would have been a culture shock to make a movie, but over the years Redgrave would attune himself to the medium of film and find it all quite absorbing.
The Lady Vanishes isn’t about star performances as it’s a Hitchcock film and it is one of his, as usual, storyboarded masterpieces. The director, had a relaxed Buddha-like calm on the set and cut Redgrave down to size on the first day when he said that Robert Donat (1905-58 brain tumour) had wanted to play his role. Donat had incredible success in Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (1935) a few years earlier by playing it light. So, it was perhaps a hint that he wanted a casual Donat-like performance.
Hitchcock’s help to Redgrave was apparently mostly technical, such as tips on how to match different shots and angles within the same scene and occasional reminders about avoiding carrying the pace of the end of one scene into the opening of another.
Whatever it was, the results sparkle throughout much of the film even after well over eighty years. It is the script by newcomers Frank Launder (1906-97) and Sidney Gilliat (1908-94) which makes it work. The pair would also write the Charters and Caldicott and Margaret Lockwood and Rex Harrison classic Night Train to Munich (1940) among others. The pair did the St. Trinians movies as well as other classics starring Alistair Sim (1900-76 lung cancer). Hitchcock is also said to have contributed to a draft of the script as well.
Much of the film proves to be a nightmare for Lockwood and Miss Froy is mistakenly called Miss Freud at one point which, painfully and yet amusingly, underlines her predicament.
The film was originally put into production in 1936 under the title Lost Lady but it is reported that the unit shooting exteriors in Yugoslavia got deported and things were put on hold. Hitchcock owed a film to Gaumont-British and so a masterpiece was made and the pace with which the film was made reflects perfectly the pace within the movie itself.
The director only wanted to finish the movie as quickly as possible as he had his eye on America and working with David O. Selznick (1902-65 heart attacks). They would make Rebecca (1940) after Hitchcock virtually threw away his last English film Jamaica Inn (1939) with no interest in it at all.
There is a suggestion that near the climax of The Lady Vanishes when Cecil Parker’s character waves a white handkerchief as he cowardly leaves the train surrounded by armed Fascists that it was a take of then English Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s holding up of a useless white piece of paper signed by Hitler which he hoped would avoid World War Two. “Peace in our time,” said Chamberlain on 30 September, 1938. But, in fact, The Lady Vanishes had long since wrapped before this happened and had been released the previous month.
The biggest laugh in its day came when an enemy soldier boasts his command of English came from an Oxford education. Redgrave then flattens him with a chair and says: “Well, I went to Cambridge.”
Redgrave liked Hitchcock, although he disliked the director’s sadistically juvenile humour. This became more evident at the end of shoot party when Hitchcock contrived for the teetotal actress Mary Clare (1892-1970) to innocently consume a rather strong mix of spirits which made her incredibly drunk.
“Hitchcock was a wonderful director,” said Googie Withers when I spoke to her. “But he was a sadistic bastard! … He even tried something silly with me.”
What that exactly was I’ll never know, as Withers wouldn’t elaborate, but she knew of the time a young crew member was hand-cuffed to a chair on set and spoon-fed castor oil… Messy!
Hitchcock, with his career on the brink of stardom in America, concentrated his mind enough on this movie to deliver this winner with nuns in high heels and the microcosm of England trapped by Fascists in a prelude of the war to come.
“We’re not in England now,” says Miss Froy at what is the decisive moment of the train stopping… They will all have to pull together at last!
Lockwood said in her biography that Hitchcock was distracted and tired during the filming of The Lady Vanishes: “He was a dozing, nodding Buddha with an enigmatic smile on his face.”
The reason for this was that the producers were giving him hell during the production and according to Gilliat this was because “he was never regarded as particularly good box office”, especially after the recent failure of his previous movie Young and Innocent (1937) to bring in the moolah.
The story of The Lady Vanishes apparently comes from a true story of the disappearance of an ailing, elderly lady during the Paris Exposition of 1889, according to a biography on Hitchcock entitled A Life in Darkness and Light by Patrick McGilligan.
Marie Belloc Lowndes (1868-1947) who wrote the Lodger in 1913 fictionalised the story that same year for her novel The End of Her Honeymoon. Those who are Hitchcock fans know one of his first silent movies was The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927) which was based on the Lowndes story.
Alexander Woolcott (1887-1943 heart attack) used the story for his book When Rome Burns using the title The Vanishing Lady. It was Hitchcock’s nod to American critic and playwright Woolcott to use the title The Lady Vanishes, perhaps a canny move since the director would soon be in America where Woolcott had been been a member of the Algonquin Round Table.
Despite the bullying of Hitchcock during the production of the movie when his longing for America must have been made all the more palpable, there is one anecdote about the director nurturing his spirit in the worst of times… Hitchcock orchestrated an event for a special guest on the set of The Lady Vanishes. One day around lunchtime he had the set cleared and mood lighting was ordered and studio musicians were ordered to be on the sidelines to strike up an arranged playlist. Hitchcock had a favourite menu drawn up and juice served in champagne glasses. It was then that he and his nine-year-old daughter Patricia ate a special lunch aboard the mock train.
As I told you, this movie is special, just like they sometimes call a one-off train ride a Special. It’s a masterpiece and Hitchcock would do many more.